As the Western Hockey League preseason is winding down, the Red Deer Rebels are convinced that they’re winding up.
The Rebels ran their exhibition winning streak to three before roughly 3,000 fans at the Enmax Centrium Friday with a convincing 5-3 triumph over the Edmonton Oil Kings.
The Rebels outshot their guests 32-21 and received excellent performances from veterans and rookies alike, including first-year forward Jeff de Wit and freshman rearguard Josh Mahura, who scored once and picked up a pair of assists.
“They’re 16-year-old players but they played well tonight,” said Red Deer GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “There are some things that young kids are going to do, it’s a learning process with them. But they did a lot of really good things, too.”
De Wit, in fact, opened the scoring at 9:11 of the first period when he cruised through the neutral zone and — using an Oil Kings defenceman as a screen — beat netminder Patrick Dea with a wrist shot to the low corner.
Meyer Nell doubled the Rebels’ lead five minutes later, breaking in alone and scoring with a nifty deke after Edmonton defender Chance Patterson fell and coughed up the puck while heading out of his own zone.
The visitors stormed back in the middle frame with goals from Ben Carroll on a give-and-go with Andrew Koep, and Brandon Ralph on a two-on-one break, but Mahura restored Red Deer’s lead five just over five minutes remaining in the period and the Rebels never looked back.
“I had a good feeling right from the start tonight,” said Mahura, Red Deer’s second-round pick in last year’s bantam draft. “But the biggest thing was getting the win here. We want to go into the regular season with an up and I think with our last three wins we’re setting ourselves up to do that. Now we have to go into tomorrow’s game with the same mindset and get another win.”
Mahura, who was referring to the Rebels’ final preseason outing tonight in Stettler against the Medicine Hat Tigers, will always remember his first WHL goal as a thing of beauty. With Red Deer on a three-and-two break, the St. Albert native busted in alone and ripped a shot over the shoulder of Tyler Santos, who replaced Dea midway through the game.
“It feels really good. Like the guys have been saying, we want to get the wins here so we don’t start the (regular) season slow,” said Mahura. “These preseason games are pretty big for our confidence and hopefully we can hit the ice running next Friday (versus the visiting Kootenay Ice).”
Presten Kopeck redirected a perfect feed from fellow veteran Brooks Maxwell past Santos just 19 seconds after Mahura’s marker and second-year forward Grayson Pawlenchuk cashed a power-play rebound at 3:53 of the third period to make it 5-2.
Oil Kings forward Brandon Ralph closed out the scoring with just over three minutes remaining, blowing a slapshot from the right faceoff circle past Taz Burman, who went the distance in the Rebels net and finished with 18 saves. Dea stopped 16 of the 18 shots he faced and Santos blocked 11 of 14.
“I thought our puck awareness at times wasn’t as sharp as it was last weekend,” said Sutter, in reference to 4-2 wins over the Tri-City Americans and Portland Winterhawks at Kennewick, Wash. “We had some turnovers in the neutral zone and at the blueline we don’t want to have.
“But in the third period, expect for the last two and half minutes, we were flawless. We didn’t give up much at all in the third, and again, it’s another step. You also have to create offence to win games and we’ve been finding ways to do that.”
Sophomore forward Nell also picked up a pair of assists for a three-point evening, while the likes of Maxwell, Kopeck and overage defenceman Brett Cote were more than efficient.
“Our older players have all been good right from the get-go. They’re paving the way to how we want to play,” said Sutter. “The leadership they’re bringing us is huge and that’s what we need. These guys are very responsible and dependable and they take a lot of pride in that and that’s what you want to see.
“The young kids just have to jump in line and follow.”
And youngsters like Mahura and de Wit seem to be doing just that.
“I’m trying to not let it get to my head,” said Mahura, who came into training camp with a can’t-miss tag. “I’m still here and still trying to make the team. If I do I’m going to try and work my way up there. I want to be a good player for this team, not just put up points but help get the team some wins. That’s the biggest thing.
“We have some really good players on the back end. We have a lot of potential back there and it’s going to be a great season.”
• The Rebels, minus key veterans Wyatt Johnson, Conner Bleackley, Haydn Fleury, Kayle Doetzel and Evan Polei, dressed 12 returning players. The Oil Kings had 10 returnees in their lineup and were missing the likes of Curtis Lazar, Mads Eller, Ashton Sautner, Dysin Mayo, Edgars Kulda and goalie Tristan Jarry, all vital members of last season’s Memorial Cup winning squad.